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Dr Alex Tang



In the last century, certain concerns have arisen concerning the effectiveness of the schooling-instructional paradigm, especially in Christian spiritual formation in Christian faith communities. It is the aim of this article to critique whether the schooling-instructional paradigm are still effective as the chief means of pedagogy in Christian faith communities in Malaysia or whether a new formative approach is needed.

The strength of the schooling-instructional paradigm is in gathering people together in one place specifically for the imparting and acquiring of content or knowledge. Hill describes the schooling model as “the institutionalisation of learning in a place where professionally trained teachers work with large groups of students in classrooms, structuring their learning through the use of a compulsory, graded curriculum monitored by various kinds of formal assessment” (1990, 3). In the endnotes, he adds “[t]he element of ‘compulsion’ also applies to attendance between the years of which each country defines as ‘compulsory education’. So the model includes the notion of a captive audience…” (1990, 24). In the Malaysian education system, it is compulsory for a child to receive at least 11 years of schooling. There are elements of coercion and indoctrination in the schooling system. It is not surprising that many adults are not eager to attend any further “education” activities, even in Christian faith communities. To them, school carries the connotation of memorising large amount of information and to be required to recall them in examinations.


The schooling-instructional paradigm is not effective in fine tuning or become sensitive to the age-related stages of psychosocial, moral and spiritual developments. It is used in cohort teaching and it is difficult to determine the developmental stages of individuals in a cohort. The compromise is to use age of the cohort as a guide. Its methodology is predominantly the transmission of facts and information. While some students with good memories are able to retain this information, others are not. The schooling-instructional paradigm do not allow for different learning styles. This results in some students being alienated and bored. The fixed curriculum discourages informal learning and initiative (Hill 1985, 48-56). In the beginning of the twentieth century learning theorists began to appreciate that human beings develop or mature in stages. Work by Jean Piaget on his cognitive development theory (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Wadsworth, 1971), Erikson’s identity-crisis driven psychosocial development theory (Erikson, 1997)[i], Kohlberg’s moral development theory, Levinson on aging (Levinson, 1978), and Fowler’s faith development theory (J. Fowler, 1995; 2000) offers significant insight into the complexity of human growth. People are only able to learn something when it is appropriate to their age and stages of psychosocial development.

There are further developments in learning theories. It has been suggested that the quality of adults learning is markedly differently from children’s. Adult learning[ii] has been studied by Malcolm Knowles (Knowles, F.Holton III, & Swanson, 2005) and refined by others (Vella, 1995; Vella, Berardinelli, & Burrow, 1998; Wlodkowski, 1999). Remarkable work has been done on children’s (Coles, 1990; Cupit, 2001; Murphy, 2000) and adolescent’s (Jones, 1987; Jordan, 2004) learning and spiritual development. Marlene D. Lefever identifies four types of learning styles: imaginative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic (LeFever, 2004). Her work highlights the need to tailor teaching to appropriate learning styles. There are other learning styles identified. Curriculum designs that are appropriate have been adequately investigated by Hill and others (Harris, 1989; Hill, 1985). These insights help to identify that one of the weaknesses of the schooling-instructional paradigm is the assumption that a “one-size fits all” approach is appropriate. The challenge the schooling-instructional paradigm faces is the lack of qualified people who are able to adequately design the age and stage graded, learning style appropriate type of curriculum. There is also a shortage of good teachers, mentors, and student counsellors. Without the input and help from these qualified Christian educators to highlight the weakness of the paradigm and offer viable alternative, contemporary spiritual formation will continue to use this paradigm and maintain status quo. The inertia against change that had accumulated over the years is considerable.

In some Christian faith communities in Malaysia there are often no awareness of age appropriate learning. Children are made to sit through the sermon delivered to adults during Sunday service. Children’s school study materials are often imported from other countries. These study materials which is age appropriate in their country of origin may not be age appropriate for Malaysian children. Age and cultural appropriateness of resources are important considerations. Often slangs and oblique cultural reference from the West are used which are incomprehensible to these Malaysian children who lacks the context.

The characteristics of the schooling-instructional paradigm as regards to learning and developmental theories are not fully compatible to the essential features of Christian spiritual formation. I define learning as (1) processing information received through the senses, (2) assimilating it by making connections with what has already been learned, (3) internationalising the result by reframing the owned worldview, and (4) acting out of this new worldview. The schooling-instructional paradigm’s strength is transferring content which is good for first component but is weak for the other three components.


The schooling-instructional paradigm may give excessive power to the teacher while withholding power from the students. Concerned about schooling in North America (public, private, elementary, secondary, college or Sunday school), theologian Rodney B. McKean writes,

There may even be ways in which schooling gets in the way of education. To the extent that schooling creates artificial hierarchical relationships, arbitrarily defines who and what is mature and immaturity, reduces each person with his or her unique and positive gifts, interests and characteristics to a few common denominators, promotes artificial competition and value system with resultant improper evaluations of self-worth and self-confidence, leads to misplaced motivations towards arbitrary definitions of achievement, and leads to unnatural fear of failure, schooling gets in the way of education (Winter 1988, 28).

Twenty years later, his words are still relevant. Students may be indoctrinated and manipulated so that some measurable desired outcomes are achieved. This is especially so when evaluation tools such as examination results are used to assess the effectiveness of the educating organisation. McKean adds, “Given this definition of education, it can be seen why schooling is seldom educative, and why it is likely to be harmful” (Winter 1988, 31). While McKean may be overstating his case, there are many anecdotal accounts of teachers abusing their power and authority. In Malaysia, the effectiveness of a teacher or a school is judged by the number of high distinctions their students scored in state examinations. This leads some teachers to either offer extra classes or tuition on how to score distinctions in examinations or encourage their students to seek such help elsewhere.

In the schooling-instructional paradigm the pedagogy is what Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen describes as a “violent process” (1971, 5). Teaching is violent because it creates competition among the students, unilateral flow of information, and alienating the students from themselves. The alternative way of teaching which he calls “redemptive” involves a teacher-student relationship that evokes openness, bilateral flow of information, and is actualising for the students themselves.

In the Christian faith communities in Malaysia, ministers, pastors, elders and theological teachers are held in high regards as the “authority” on spiritual, biblical and theological matters. This high respect for teachers is also reinforced by the Confucian ethics. The down side to this is that members expect to be fed “processed and pre-digested content” in their education classes and small groups. Many held the assumptions that they are not capable of understanding Scripture themselves without their leaders’ help. Even highly educated professionals will prefer to receive “spiritual knowledge” from the church leaders rather than looking up the material themselves.

Christian spiritual formation is never about power and authority. It is about helping others to develop to their fullest their God given potential. In Christian faith communities there should not be any power differentiation between teachers and learners especially in formal learning situations.


While the schooling-instructional paradigm is effective in transmitting facts and information, there are doubts whether it is effective in transmitting values[iii]. According to Australian educator Brian Hill, “the schooling model is less effective in arousing a desire for the good, a respect for persons, and a sense of purpose in life. (Hill, 1985, 50). This is because schooling is always locked into an academic-literary format. In a later study of value education, Hill notes that “[s]chools which seek to foster attitudes, beliefs, and values appear to succeed only when they are broadly reflecting the home background and social class of their students, while attempts to change student values in directions, not endorsed by these influences generally seem to make little difference” (1990, 22).

In How Learners Respond to the Teaching of Beliefs and Values, Hill (2008) identifies the three dimensions in how students respond to the teaching of values. These dimensions are the psychological dimensions of the cognitive, the emotional, and the volitional. While he was writing about teaching in schools, I believe his findings have implications in contemporary spiritual formation of Christian faith communities. When a student is taught about a value X, his or she will filter through the cognitive, emotional and volitional dimensions before coming to a decision on what to do about the value X. According to Hill, the cognitive plays a small role in the learning of values. The emotional dimension is more important, and it is that dimension that influences the volitional in prioritizing its values. This is in agreement to the findings of Willard (2002) and Wilhoit (2008).

In the teaching of values, I agree with Hill that teachers have a tendency to use conditioning, coercion, indoctrination, and persuasion as possible pedagogies. Instead Hill suggests that teachers should utilise four possible ways to teach about value X:

(1) I will model X in my own behaviour before students.

(2) I will, where necessary for the common good, require students to behave in the classroom in a manner consistent with X.

(3) I will encourage maturing students to engage in critical examination of the grounds for and against prioritizing X in their lives.

(4) I will represent to students that X, in my opinion, points to a defensible value by which to live, but I will respect and not penalize dissent. (B. V. Hill, 2008)

Hill highlights that in the teaching of values, there is a need to be aware of the cognitive, emotional and volitional dimensions of learning. Our pedagogy must be based on these dimensions and should involve modelling, reflection and respect. This explains the maxim that “values are often caught, not taught.” Value transmission is best done in a community. The essential spiritual formation features of relationships, community, learning, growing in holiness, social engagement, and the work of the Holy Spirit are vital for the transmission of Christian values.

This has important implications in Christian faith communities as the aim of spiritual formation is not just knowledge but a change in value system. It is especially important in Presbyterian churches where the emphasis is more on the cognitive learning and where emotional dimensions are often downplayed.  In Malaysia where many of the Christians are first, second or third generation Christians the acquiring of Christian values is often needed. First generation Christians may live in households where the rest of the family are not Christians and their value systems are different from the value system of Christians.



The pedagogical method of the school-instructional paradigm is effective in transmitting large amount of content in a relatively short time. The content is decided and controlled by the teachers. It is relatively easy to indoctrinate and manipulate the students by controlling and limiting the content to be taught. If students trust their teachers, believe in what they were taught, believe that it is not necessary to examine critically what they were taught, and to believe that this is the right content then indoctrination is said to have taken place. Many cults and fundamentalist uses this type of teaching. Hill describe indoctrination as “the attempt to fix certain beliefs in the mind of learners without making them aware of dissentient views held by others in their community and without equipping them to examine the evidence for themselves” (1985, 73). In reference to spiritual formation in Christian faith communities it produces a cultic community which may feel self-righteous and feel alienated from others of the same faith. Members are conformed consciously or unconsciously to a certain way of thinking without allowance for thinking and self-expression.  New Zealand educator Allan Harkness agrees with this when he notes that indoctrination occurs when “elements of the intentional processes of that community inhibit holistic edification appropriate to a participant’s stage of development” (2002, 37).

The format of the schooling-instructional paradigm makes it easy to be manipulated by external forces. Kim Yong-Bock in his 2001 paper, Education for the 21st Century in Asia for the Asia Religious Educator Forum of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), regards education as a “kind of cultural action for the sharing of life-wisdom in community.” In evaluating the “false education of the globalisation process” he notes,

The most serious danger for education in Asia and the world lies in the fact that it is subjugated to the powers of the global market. Those powers have secured cultural hegemony over all the peoples in the world and thereby over the whole of cosmic life. The cultural life of all people – their minds, hearts and senses – is for all practical purposes dominated by the modernist school systems and hi-tech mass media, and colonised by the market forces. Total consciousness as well as conscience is being dictated by the cultural actions of the principalities and powers in the global market (Kim, 2001)

The influences of McDonaldisation (the socio-economic aspects of globalisation) and  Disneyisation (the cultural aspects of globalisation) are highlighted here. Kim calls for the Christian faith communities to resist these influences by treating people as the subject rather than the object of their cultural action (education), by teaching ways to resist the “market powers”, and by building a vision through cultural action (education) a life with “creativity and imagination” nurtured by the Asian peoples’ experiences (Kim, 2001). This is pertinent for the Asian church which is also searching for its identity in the midst of glocalisation[iv] influences. This is particularly relevant to the Christian faith communities in Malaysia as Malaysia is a developing country and thus particularly vulnerable to globalisation influences. The call for the Asian church to be counter-cultural in her action is never more relevant than today. Globalisation and glocalisation are influences which are very manipulative.

The high respect for teachers in Christian faith communities in Malaysia has an unfortunate effect. It conditions their members to be open to manipulation by teachers outside these churches. There are some mega-churches in Singapore which are lead by charismatic, highly talented teacher-communicator-pastors. Unfortunately, these pastors are greatly influenced by the “Prosperity Gospel.”  Their sermons and teachings are widely available in books, audio CD, video and online. These teachings have made their way into the Christian faith communities in Malaysia and have greatly influenced some groups of church members. It is unfortunate that members of Christian faith communities were never taught to be discerning of their teachers until it is too late. The basis for discerning is the Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

Indoctrination and manipulation should have no place in Christian spiritual formation as Christian spiritual formation is based on the freedom of choice (intentionality), and the freedom to accept or reject the truth (life-long learning). The freedom to choose will involve critical thinking.


There is little room in the schooling-instructional paradigm for the encouragement of critical thinking. American educator Stephen Brookfield writing in Developing Critical Thinkers, summarises the commonly accepted components of critical thinking as (1) identifying and challenging assumptions, (2) examining the context of the situation, (3) imagining and exploring alternatives, and (4) “reflective skepticism” (1987, 7-9). Critical thinking is a process. It starts with examining the assumptions that underlies ideas, values, actions and beliefs that are often taken for granted. These assumptions are checked for accuracy and validity. If the assumptions are found to be false, new assumptions will have to be made and the process repeated. Critical thinkers are aware that “context influences thoughts and actions” (Brookfield, 1987, 8). Critical thinking involves examining the context in any situation to get a truer picture of assumptions, thoughts and actions. Another feature of critical thinking is the ability to think of alternatives. In formulating alternatives to what was once assumed true makes a critical thinker a reflective sceptic who examines everything.

Other scholars and educators have developed descriptive elements of critical thinking such as logical reasoning abilities, assumption hunting, and emancipatory learning. Most of these studies on critical thinking are done using adults and college students. Singapore has taken a bold step in extending the teaching of critical thinking skills to children. A major revision of their education strategy, Thinking Schools, Learning Nations was launched in 1997. The Singapore Ministry of Education has extended the concept of a learning organisation to a learning society. Singaporean educator Ng Pak-Tee summarises the new strategy as “Thinking Schools aims to develop creative thinking skills, lifelong learning passion and nationalistic commitment in the young. Learning Nations aims to make learning a national culture, encouraging creativity and innovation at every level of society, which goes beyond schools and educational institutions” (Ng, 2005, 2). The key to this strategy is ability-driven education (ADE). The focus is in identifying and developing the talents and abilities of every child to their maximum potential. The ability-driven education replaces efficiency-driven education (EDE) in the new strategy (Tan, 2005, 5). Efficiency-driven education is another name for schooling-instructional paradigm which was the main paradigm of schooling in Singapore.

The Singapore Ministry of Education made further innovation in their education strategy with Teach Less, Learn More. This strategy builds upon the concept of self-directed, self motivated learning by changing the educators themselves. Educators are being called back to the basics by asking themselves why they teach, reflecting on what they teach, and reconsidering how they teach (MOE, 2005). The Singapore educational models show how seriously the Singapore government is taking the education of their children to be critical thinkers. These strategies changes have also shown how far they have moved from the schooling-instructional paradigm. There is however no similar change in the educational policy of Malaysia.

This has particular significance for the spiritual formation in Christian faith communities if these faith communities want to create theological reflective thinker. Christians need to be taught to think and reflect theologically on their lived experience. This learning, thinking and reflecting is part of the process of Christian spiritual formation. What is even more significant is that Singapore has assessed the schooling-instructional paradigm to be not effective for their current needs and is considering a different paradigm.


This article looks descriptively at the schooling-instructional paradigm as applied to the Christian faith communities in Malaysia. The schooling-instructional paradigm was effective as a pedagogy for its times. However, as society develops from an industrial-based to a knowledge-based economy, new modes of thinking and education are needed. It is being recognised, at least in some countries, that what was effective in the schooling-instructional paradigm, restricted as it is to the transmission of content is no longer effective in this new economy. This applies equally to education in the Christian faith communities in Malaysia. It must be recognised that spiritual formation in Christian faith communities is to transform lives into the character of Christ, not just transmission of knowledge of the faith[v].



Astley, J., & Francis, L. (Eds.). (1992). Christian Perspectives on Faith Development. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.

Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Coles, R. (1990). The Spiritual Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Miffin Company.

Cupit, C. G. (2001). A Critical Evaluation of Biblical Perspectives on Spiritual Development and of Dynamic Systems Theory to Identify Major Implications for Public Educative Care of Children. Murdock University, Perth.

Dykstra, C., & Parks, S. (Eds.). (1986). Faith Development and Fowler. Birmingham: Religious Education Press.

Erikson, J. M. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed: Erik H. Erikson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Fowler, J. (2000). Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (revised ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

_____. (1995). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: HarperCollins.

Friedman, T. L. (2000). The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books.

Harkness, A. (2002). Educational Indoctrination in Christian Faith Communities. Journal of Christian Education, 45(3), 33-47.

Harris, M. (1989). Fashion Me A People: Curriculum in the Church (1st ed. ed.). Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Hill, B. (1985). The Greening of Christian Education. Homebush West, NSW: Lancer Books.

_____. (1990). That They May Learn: Towards a Christian View of Education. Flemington Markets, NSW: Lancer Books.

_____. (2008). How Learners Respond to the Teaching of Beliefs and Values. Journal of Education and Christian Beliefs, 12(2), 101-113.

Jones, S. D. (1987). Faith Shaping: Youth and the Experience of Faith. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Jordan, D. (2004). Faith Formation in Brethren Youth: Interviews with Church of the Brethren Adults concerning the Formation of their Faith in their Adolescent Years. Brethen Life and Thought, 37(1), 25-46.

Kim, Y.-B. (2001). Education for the 21st Century in Asia.   Retrieved 7 February 2008, from http://www.cca.org.hk/resources/papers/conference/aref-kyb.htm

Knowles, M. S., F.Holton III, E., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (6 ed.). London: Elsevier.

LeFever, M. D. (2004). Learning Styles: Reaching Everyone God Gave You to Teach. Eastbourne, England: NexGen.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The Seasons of a Man's Life. New York: Ballantine.

McKean, R. B. (Winter 1988). The State of Christian Education. Christian Education Journal, VIII (2), 25-32.

MOE. (2005). Contact-The Big Picture: Teach Less, Learn More: Re-igniting Passion and Mission. Ministry of Education Singapore   Retrieved 20 January 2010, from http://www3.moe.edu.sg/corporate/contactonline/2005/Issue13/big_pic/bigpic.htm

Murphy, A. (2000). The Faith of a Child. Chicago: Moody Press.

Ng, P. T. (2005). Introduction. In P. T. Ng & J. Tan (Eds.), Shaping Singapore's Future: Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (pp. 1-4). Singapore: Prentice Hill.

Nouwen, H. J. M. (1971). Creative Ministry. New York: Doubleday.

Pazmiño, R. W. (1997). Foundational Issues in Christian Education (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child (La Pyschologiede l'enfant ed.): Basic Books.

Seymour, J. L., Miller, D. E., Little, S. P., Foster, C. R., Moore, A. J., & Wehrheim, C. A. (1982). Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press.

Tan, C. (2005). Driven by Pragmatism: Issues and Challenges in Ability-Driven Education. In P. T. Ng & J. Tan (Eds.), Shaping Singapore's Future: Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (pp. 5-21). Singapore: Prentice Hill.

Vella, J. (1994). Learning to Listen, Learning to Touch: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Vella, J. (1995). Training Through Dialogue: Promoting Effective Learning and Change with Adults (1st ed. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vella, J., Berardinelli, P., & Burrow, J. (1998). How do They Know They Know? : Evaluating Adult Learning (1st ed. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Wadsworth, B. J. (1971). Piaget's Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism (5th ed. ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers USA.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1999). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults (2d ed. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.



[i] As the insights of these writers are well known, these developmental theories will not be examined in this article. For their relevance to Christian education, see (Seymour et al., 1982); (Astley & Francis, 1992); and (Dykstra & Parks, 1986)

[ii] Building on the work of Knowles that adults have enough experience to organise their own learning by dialogue, American educator Jane Vella suggests 12 principles of adult learning. See (Vella, 1994) p.3-22.

[iii] Values are also known as virtues. In a non-Christian context, these are moral virtues. The New Testament offers several lists of Christian virtues in 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:22-23; Phil. 4:8 and Col. 3: 12-16.

[iv] Glocalisation is an amalgam of the words, globalisation and localisation. The Christian faith communities should act globally and think locally. In Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree the benefits of globalisation are put in the context of cultural change. Friedman says that technology is making globalisation inevitable as represented by the Lexus, but people yearn to have cultural roots like their Olive Trees. See (Friedman, 2000)

[v] American ecumenical evangelical educator, Robert Pazmiño notes that “Christian education is the deliberate, systematic, and sustained divine and human efforts to share or appropriate the knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, sensibilities, and behaviours that comprise or are consistent with the Christian faith. It fosters the change, renewal, and reformation of persons, groups, and structures by the power of the Holy Spirit to conform to the revealed will of God as expressed in the Scriptures and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus Christ, as well as any outcomes of that effort.” (Pazmiño, 1997)  p.87. This is but one of the many definitions of Christian education.



|posted 28 April 2010|


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